[News analysis] China emphasizes “cooperation” with S. Korea amid diplomatic spat with US

Posted on : 2020-08-24 17:18 KST Modified on : 2020-08-24 17:18 KST
Suh Hoon, Yang Jiechi meet for six hours
Blue House National Security Office Director Suh Hoon (left) and Yang Jiechi, member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo in charge of foreign policy, shake hands in front of the Westin Chosun Busan hotel on Aug. 22. (Yonhap News)
Blue House National Security Office Director Suh Hoon (left) and Yang Jiechi, member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo in charge of foreign policy, shake hands in front of the Westin Chosun Busan hotel on Aug. 22. (Yonhap News)

“We had a very good and wide-ranging conversation that lasted for a long time, with all topics receiving ample coverage.” -- Suh Hoon, director of Blue House National Security Office

“Our conversation today was quite good.” -- Yang Jiechi, member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo in charge of foreign policy

When Suh Hoon and Yang Jiechi made a short appearance before reporters following a long tête-à-tête on the afternoon of Aug. 22, they responded briefly to a flood of questions. Their expansive gestures and the satisfied expressions apparent behind their face masks suggested that their six-hour conversation on Saturday had been congenial.

Suh and Yang’s meeting provoked an unusual level of interest not only in South Korea and China but also in countries such as the US and Japan because of its peculiar timing. Since China passed national security legislation at the end of June that greatly restricts civil liberties in Hong Kong, the hegemonic struggle between the US and China has gradually become more overt and all-encompassing, extending beyond the economic and military domains and into the realm of ideology.

Last month, the US carried out large-scale military exercises in the South China Sea involving two aircraft carriers. In a speech on July 23, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on liberal democracies such as the US, South Korea, Japan, and the countries of Europe to band together against China’s Communist Party.

After hunkering down for a month as the storm raged around it, China finally dispatched Yang Jiechi, its top diplomat, to Singapore on Aug. 19-20 and to South Korea on Aug. 20-21. Yang’s visit hints at China’s strategy of resisting the US’ “encirclement” efforts by bolstering relations with Singapore, which professes diplomatic neutrality in US-China relations, and with South Korea, which is heavily dependent on China, both geopolitically and economically.

Suh and Yang’s conversation can be summarized in a single sentence from Blue House Spokesperson Kang Min-seok’s written summary. According to Kang, South Korea responded to China’s request that the two countries “continue working together as cooperative partners and as important neighbors” by emphasizing that “a relationship of mutual prosperity and amicable cooperation between the US and China is important to the peace and prosperity of Northeast Asia and of the world.”

When China asked South Korea for better communication and a stronger relationship, Suh agreed to increase cooperation on the COVID-19 pandemic, to accelerate negotiations about the second phase of the South Korea-China Free Trade Agreement, and to find trial programs for linking up China’s Belt and Road Initiative with South Korea’s New Southern and New Northern policies. But at the same time, Suh urged China to take aggressive action to improve relations with the US, which is the fundamental cause of the current issues.

Agreement regarding Xi Jinping’s proposed visit to S. Korea

South Korea and China also reached an agreement on Saturday about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proposed visit to South Korea, which has been the subject of intense interest: Xi’s visit will be arranged as soon as the COVID-19 situation has been stabilized and the right conditions are in place. During that discussion, Yang made no effort to conceal China’s determination to improve relations with South Korea, affirming that South Korea is the first country Xi intends to visit. The proposed visit would be Xi’s first to South Korea in over six years, since July 2014. Yang and Suh also reportedly discussed the need to hold a trilateral summit with the leader of Japan before the end of the year; this year’s summit is supposed to be hosted by South Korea.

An article in the People’s Daily on Aug. 22 offers clearer insight into China’s expectations for Yang’s visit to South Korea. The article said that Yang had suggested to Suh that the two countries should “elevate our strategic cooperative partnership to a new level” by “strengthening high-level exchange and strategic communication and actively linking our two countries’ development strategies.”

In apparent recognition of the criticism China has faced for its unilateral behavior, Yang also emphasized that China “wants to cooperate on building a new model of mutually beneficial international relations, to strengthen multilateral international cooperation with South Korea, and to defend multilateralism and free trade.” China was obliquely asking South Korea to take its side on the key issue of growing nationalist behavior from the US, epitomized by Trump’s slogan of “America first,” in its trade war with China.

Overall, it appears that Suh focused on technical issues, such as increasing the number of flights to help South Korea survive the COVID-19 crisis, while Yang stressed a fundamental and structural reset of the two countries’ relationship, mentioning an upgrade of their strategic partnership.

While the meeting concluded with smiles, the big challenges lie ahead. Saturday’s exploratory dialogue could lead to China pushing harder for more communication and stronger relations with South Korea in connection with Xi’s visit. If a thorny issue arises during that process, forcing South Korea to choose between the US and China, there could be serious pain in store, just as during the controversy over the THAAD deployment four years ago.

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff writer, and Seo Young-ji, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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